Deyda Hydara, one of Gambia’s most distinguished journalists, was gunned down in a Banjul suburb on December 16, 2004. A leading critic of the regime, Hydara had led the efforts of journalist groups to resist changes to press laws that would have severely muzzled Gambian journalism. The Gambian authorities have failed to uncover the truth and bring to justice those behind this vicious crime. On the contrary, they have conducted a sham investigation and suppressed legitimate calls for a proper inquiry into the violent silencing of Deyda Hydara. The impunity surrounding the Hydara case is emblematic of the dire state of freedom of the media and political dissent in a country that hosts the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
The applicants in the current case are Deyda Hydara, Jr., Ismaila Hydara, and the Africa Regional Office of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ-Africa). The first two applicants are children of the late Deyda Hydara, former publisher and editor of the Banjul-based newspaper The Point, and former president of the Gambian Press Union. IFJ is the world’s largest association of journalists. IFJ-Africa, the organization’s chapter for the African continent, is a separate legal entity based and registered in Dakar, Senegal.
Throughout his professional life, Deyda Hydara had devoted himself to protecting media freedoms in the face of Gambian government efforts to control the press. In his last Point column, which appeared on the day of his death, Deyda Hydara vowed to continue to challenge such restrictions through all constitutional means. In the weeks preceding the shooting, Mr. Hydara had received multiple death threats by telephone.
Shooting of Deyda Hydara
Deyda Hydara was murdered in a drive-by shooting on 16 December 2004, as he drove home from The Point premises. Two or more assailants, driving in an old taxi, shot Mr. Hydara multiple times in his head and stomach. According to eye witnesses, a Mitsubishi pick-up truck with tinted windows was parked in the vicinity of the newspaper’s premises shortly before the shooting. Similar vehicles, which are known to be driven by Gambian security forces, appeared to have placed the newspaper premises under surveillance earlier that day. His two colleagues who were riding with him received life-threatening injuries.
Flawed and misleading investigation
The police investigation pursued almost exclusively suspects linked to Mr. Hydara’s personal life, rather than his professional work. Investigators took more than an hour to arrive at the crime scene, and failed to question the two eye-witnesses to the crime until much later. The crime scene probing was very poor, by the government’s own admission.
In February 2005, President Jammeh of the Gambia ordered that the official investigation be handed over to the Gambian National Intelligence Agency (NIA). The NIA, an organization with a track record of serious rights violations, is under the direct control of the President. According to domestic and international rights groups, the NIA is responsible for the arbitrary detention of journalists and the persecution of critics of the Jammeh regime.
As expected, the NIA investigation into the Hydara shooting was a complete sham, and a transparent effort to discredit the memory of Deyda Hydara. The investigators did not indicate whether they conducted any ballistic tests and what evidence, if any, they obtained from them. The report reviews a number of dubious scenarios suggesting a privately-motivated shooting, but failed to pursue the strong indications of a link to Mr. Hydara’s journalistic activities. Eight of the report’s 22 pages attack Mr. Hydara’s character, and chastise him for having being critical of the Gambian government.
Gambian media reports and independent monitors have identified the so-called “Green Boys” as potential suspects in the case. The Green Boys are a loose group of government and ruling party supporters of (para) military background, who are suspected of being behind a series of intimidation campaigns and violent attacks against independent journalists and media houses in the years before the Hydara shooting. The NIA report made only a cursory, dismissive reference to the Green Boys possible connection with the Hydara case.
Calls for justice suppressed
Since the death of Mr. Hydara, Gambian and international civil society has repeatedly called for the effective investigation of the killing. A report of the U.N. Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review on the Gambia also included a call for an independent investigation. Amnesty International expressed concern about his killing and made a general recommendation for investigations of all human right violations.
In response, the Jammeh regime has done everything in its power to suppress calls for justice in the Hydara case. The government blocked several attempts to commemorate the anniversaries of Mr. Hydara’s killing. In recent years, seven journalists were detained because they spoke out against the government’s failure to investigate Mr. Hydara’s murder. Six more journalists were convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment for similar motives, though later were pardoned by the President. In one of his televised statements, President Jammeh rejected any government involvement in the Hydara killing, but threatened to kill anyone cooperating with human right defenders who are deemed to be destabilizing his government.
Gambian press under siege
The killing of Mr. Hydara was part of a continuing pattern of unpunished threats and violence against media houses, media professionals and other independent figures critical of the government. In addition, numerous reports have warned of severe restrictions on the freedom of the press in The Gambia, which have made the country one of the worst places in Africa, if not the world, for practicing independent journalism.
In two recent judgments against The Gambia, the ECOWAS Court has found that Gambian government agents were responsible for the disappearance of Ebrima Manneh, a journalist with the Daily Observer who is still unaccounted for, and the torture of Musa Saidykhan, a former chief editor of The Independent, a newspaper that has been shut down by the government without a court order.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has repeatedly raised concerns regarding “the alleged murder, unlawful arrest and detention, harassment, intimidation, prosecutions, and disappearances of journalists and human rights defenders” in The Gambia.
The Open Society Justice Initiative is representing the Hydara family and IFJ-Africa in the proceedings before the ECOWAS Court. The Abuja-based law firm Aluko and Oyebode is also providing pro bono representation.
Failure to investigate. The State is required to conduct a thorough, rigorous, and independent investigation into the violent death of Mr. Hydara that is capable of ascertaining the circumstances of the shooting, as well as of identifying and punishing the intellectual and material perpetrators of the act. It failed to do so, conducting a sham investigation that was meant to discredit Mr. Hydara.
Climate of impunity contributed to killing. The State contributed to Mr. Hydara’s death by tolerating and causing a climate of impunity in the country as a result of its systematic failure to condemn, effectively investigate, and secure accountability for a series of grave attacks against media professionals and political dissidents in the years preceding Mr. Hydara’s murder.
Media freedom violated. There is no graver interference with freedom of the press than for a journalist to be killed for what he writes. The ongoing failure to conduct a proper investigation has a chilling effect on the important work of journalists in The Gambia and in West Africa in general.
No redress. The State has not provided Mr. Hydara’s family with any redress or compensation for his death and the violation of his freedom of expression; and the failure to effectively investigate his death and identify the perpetrators has prevented them from seeking compensation themselves.
December 16, 2004. Deyda Hydara is killed in a drive-by shooting in a Banjul suburb. He had received death threats in the preceding weeks.
February 20, 2005. President Jammeh hands over the investigation to the NIA, an agency with a notorious record of human rights abuses and political repression.
June 2005. The NIA leaks a whitewash report of its “findings” from the Hydara investigation.
January 2007. In a press interview, Gambian President Jammeh blames “Gambia’s enemies” for murdering Mr. Hydara, without further elaboration.
June 5, 2008. The ECOWAS Court finds Gambian government agents responsible for the disappearance of journalist Ebrima Manneh.
July 2009. The Gambian government detains and prosecutes seven journalists for speaking out against the failure to investigate Mr. Hydara’s murder and the suppression of freedom of expression. The government pressures The Point to remove an online banner asking “Who Killed Deyda Hydara?”
December 16, 2010. On the sixth anniversary of the Hydara killing, the ECOWAS Court finds against The Gambia in a case involving the torture of Musa Saidykhan, former editor of The Independent.
November 23, 2011. The Open Society Justice Initiative submits a petition to the ECOWAS Court on behalf of the Hydara family and IFJ-Africa.
December 28, 2011. The government files a preliminary objection claiming that the action is out of time.
December 13, 2012. The ECOWAS Court holds a hearing on the Government’s preliminary objections and declares the case admissible.
The case is currently being considered by the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).